Banksy Pledges $13.3 Million to Help Turn the U.K. Prison Where Oscar Wilde Was Once Held Into an Art Center

The maverick street artist plans to sell a stencil to raise funds to buy Reading Gaol.

Members of the public take pictures of a Banksy miral on the side of HMP Reading on March 5, 2021 in Reading, England. (Photo by Ming Yeung/Getty Images)
Members of the public take pictures of a Banksy miral on the side of HMP Reading on March 5, 2021 in Reading, England. (Photo by Ming Yeung/Getty Images)

Banksy has emerged as a possible white knight in a long-unrealized plan to transform the vacant prison where Oscar Wilde was once held into an art center. Reading Gaol has been up for sale since 2019 and, without a better offer, could potentially be turned into apartments.

The famed street artist has offered to sell the stencil he used to paint a mural on the facade of the famous building in March. The sale could raise £10 million ($13.3 million) to support the Reading Borough Council’s effort offer to buy the grade II listed historic building in Reading, which is around 40 miles (64 km) west of London.

Earlier this year, Banksy unveiled the mural, which depicts an inmate climbing down a rope made of bed sheets with a typewriter as a weight on the bottom. Wilde was one of the prison’s most famous inmates; he was jailed there between 1895 and 1897 for “gross indecency” after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was discovered. The building has since been described as an LGBT heritage site. During his stay, Wilde wrote the famous poem Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic,” Banksy said in a statement published by the BBC. “Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.” A representative for Banksy did not immediately offer further comment to Artnet News.

The stencil Banksy used to make the mural, Create Escape, is currently on view at Grayson Perry’s Art Club exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

“We very much welcome the attention that Banksy’s interest in Reading Gaol has placed on both the MoJ’s [Ministry of Justice] sale of the vacant prison and on the council’s ambition to transform it into an hub of arts, heritage, and culture,” Jason Brock, leader of the Reading Borough Council, told Artnet News.

“The council has had only informal approaches from representatives of Banksy to date, but no detailed discussions.”

Reading Gaol has been vacant since December 2013 when it was shuttered by the Ministry of Justice. The site was put on the market but several offers have fallen through. In March, the Reading Borough Council submitted a £2.6 million ($3.4 million) bid, but the ministry rejected it as too low.

The council has not formally withdrawn its offer—though whether Banksy’s effort can help revive it remains to be seen.

“Our bid remains firmly on the table and has widespread support—both from within the community here in Reading and from the wider arts, heritage, and cultural community,” Brock said. The plan has been backed by a number of celebrated artists including Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, and Natalie Dormer.

It was reported in November that anonymous donors could potentially make a multimillion-dollar offer to supplement the council’s bid to acquire the site, Reading East MP Matt Rodda noted in a letter to Justice Minister Dominic Raab. Rodda revealed on Sunday that he has been in talks with Banksy’s side “for some months.”

The Ministry of Justice remains cagey about how Banksy’s bid may affect the offer. “The deadline for the bids has passed and we are currently considering the ones we received,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice’s Prison Service told Artnet News.

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